Parade ban leaves talks in mire

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The Independent Online
A TENSE and potentially violent confrontation between security forces and loyalists seemed certain last night after next Sunday's Drumcree Orange parade was again banned.

The prohibition, imposed after an unsuccessful personal intervention by Tony Blair, overshadowed other talks at Stormont on the key arms-decommissioning issue, which remained unresolved last night.

The talks edged closer to their Wednesday midnight deadline without focused negotiations. One party leader emerged from the talks in mid-afternoon to say: "Nothing's happening in there yet. I'm going for a walk."

The talks may only be kick-started into life this afternoon, when the report on decommissioning by the Canadian General John de Chastelain is due to be delivered. Last week he circulated all parties with a number of questions to be answered by noon today. Parties were asked if any areas of implementation of the overall agreement would "demonstrably facilitate the decommissioning process" and whether they could help determine the willingness of paramilitaries to hand over weapons by May 2000.

Sinn Fein's response will be scrutinised for indications of whether and when the IRA might be expected to move on decommissioning. In the meantime the security forces will proceed with carefully drawn-up plans to seal off the countryside around Drumcree parish church to ensure that Sunday's march cannot reach the Catholic Garvaghy Road. More than 1,000 troops have already been flown in from Britain.

Despite the ruling, the Orangemen's District Master, Harold Gracey, last night vowed they would still attempt to parade along the banned route from Drumcree Church through the Garvaghy Road this Sunday. Mr Gracey told about 1,500 Orangemen and their supporters at a meeting last night that they should not feel too "downhearted".

Ominously, a loyalist bomb threat interrupted the news conference at which Alistair Graham, the Parades Commission chairman, was announcing the Drumcree ban. Portadown Orangemen later issued a statement expressing "bitter disappointment" over what they described as a failure by residents to respond to initiatives aimed at solving the dispute.

There is also much apprehension about Orange Order plans to have two large parades depart from their normal routes on 12 July to converge on a Belfast flashpoint, the Catholic Lower Ormeau district.

The political talks appeared dependent on bringing maximum pressure to bear on both the Ulster Unionists and the republican movement to move towards a compromise. The US President, Bill Clinton, was again active yesterday, arguing that movement was necessary to keep the peace process alive.

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said the proposed new coalition executive would be set up simultaneously with IRA decommissioning. "What we want to hear first of all, clearly and unequivocally - no ifs, no buts - is that republicans accept that they have an obligation to decommission and that they are going to do so within the timescale set out in the agreement."

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said: "We should not under-estimate the seriousness of this last, critical stage of negotiations. Sinn Fein is here to do the business." He said a deal was possible if the Good Friday Agreement was implemented in full, but the Ulster Unionists' slogan "no guns, no government" was standing the peace accord on its head.

Unionists called for clarification of a report that two men charged with possession of explosive substances in the Republic last week had been housed in the Provisional IRA wing at Portlaoise prison. The men were charged following the discovery by Gardai of a quantity of bomb-making equipment in County Donegal.